Best & worst of Columbo

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I’ve been watching Columbo on the Netflix almost every night for the last few weeks. I’ve seen all those original episodes from the 70s several times; so I pretty much put them on, get comfy on the couch, and fall asleep to Peter Falk’s most beloved character. Most of the episodes are entertaining and very much of the 1970s. Lots of bad fashion, weird interior design, and smoking. Everybody smoked back then. At least, that’s how it seems.

Well, you might imagine that I’ve gotten to know those shows pretty well, and I have. You might also imagine I have favorites and not favorites, and I have. So, I thought I’d list the top three and the bottom three. This is, of course, just my opinion. Your results may vary.

My top three episode picks:

3) The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case – Original air date May 22, 1977

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In this episode, Lt. Columbo investigates a murder at a Mensa-type meeting house, where people with very high IQs gather to talk smart stuff. One of the members, Oliver Brandt, played by Theodore Bikel, knows his accounting partner and fellow club member, Bertie (Sorrell Booke), has discovered his embezzling of their clients’ funds. Brandt has concocted a brilliant plan to murder Bertie, using a gun with a silencer, then join the meeting of the minds, and make it sound as though the murder is taking place while he is with the group.

Bikel is excellent as the genius troubled by his spendthrift, but gorgeous, wife (Samantha Eggar) and bored by the idiot geniuses he is surrounded by at the club. Columbo, ever the polite, rumpled, non-threatening detective, demonstrates that he might be eligible to join the group as he masterfully gets the murderer to show us how he did it. And Bikel’s momentary joy as he shows the detective his ingenious scheme is terrific.

2) Short Fuse – Original air date January 19, 1972

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Roddy McDowell plays a none-too-serious, spoiled rich kid who is being blackmailed by his uncle into allowing the uncle to sell the family business to a huge conglomerate. “Junior”, as McDowell’s character is called, is a brilliant chemist and he rigs a cigar box to explode, killing his uncle. Junior then takes control of the company.

As always, Columbo politely investigates, appearing to be clueless, all the while innocently maneuvering the murderer into admitting his crime. In fact, the reveal that takes place on a mountain sky car has McDowell very convincingly losing his cool believing something awful is about to happen.

1) Murder By The Book – Original air date September 15, 1971

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This is the premiere episode of the Columbo series and it stars Jack Cassidy as the bad guy. Cassidy, who rivals Robert Culp as the best murderer of the series, (both actors have played the murderer three times) plays the less productive half of the writing team of the very successful Mrs. Melville mystery novels. He decides to murder his writing partner (Martin Milner) instead of letting him go off and write on his own. Later, he kills a woman (Barbara Colby) who was blackmailing him, because she knew what he did.

Right from the beginning of the series, Cassidy set the template on how the suspects would treat Columbo. He would pretend to help, but would soon become dismissive of our disheveled detective, even annoyed. In fact, he would become angry that Columbo just kept popping up to ask one more question.

This episode was directed by Steven Spielberg and you can see some Spielberg touches throughout the show, especially in the final scene as Cassidy angrily walks off the elevator and heads to his office. There are a few police officers around and, as Cassidy passes them and goes off camera, a cop steps into frame to keep a watchful eye. Pure Spielberg.

My bottom three picks:

3) Fade In To Murder – Original air date October 10, 1976

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William Shatner plays the murderer this time. His character an actor who plays Detective Lucerne on a wildly popular television series. Columbo acts a bit starstruck as he allows Shatner to pretend he is the TV detective helping a real detective solve a murder. The murder was of the producer (Lola Albright) of the Detective Lucerne program. She was blackmailing the actor by threatening to expose the fact that he had deserted the Korean War.

The idea is that Shatner plays a sympathetic murderer. And he kind of is, but it’s Shatner and his acting is a bit Shatner-y. The show does acknowledge that it is silly for Columbo to play into the fantasy that the actor is actually the character he plays, which helps. A little.

But what gets under my skin is how often Columbo calls the murderer “sir”. It’s a lot! I counted and I got, at least, 150 uses of the pronoun. It drove my wife crazy when we watched this episode together once. “Stop saying sir!” she shouted at the TV.

It seems the over-abundant “sirs” were intentional. Columbo always called men “sir” through the series, but this show ramped it up so that Shatner could, once he had been busted, tell Columbo to stop calling him “sir”.

Even if it was intentional, it was very annoying.

2) Dagger Of The Mind – Original air date November 26, 1972

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Columbo takes his show on the road. He heads to London to check out investigation techniques at Scotland Yard and ends up solving a murder. Two aging actors of the theat-AR (husband and wife characters played by Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman) have tricked a wealthy aristocrat (John Williams) into financing a production of Macbeth. He had wised up to the scheme and confronted the couple and was accidentally murdered by them. They attempt to cover it up, but that pesky American police detective figures it out.

The problem with this episode is Basehart and Blackman and their chewing of the scenery. If you ever wanted an example of overacting, watch these two. From what I know, they are generally decent actors in other productions; but, for some reason, they needed to act for the back row of a theater a thousand miles away from their stage.

It is so over the top!

1) Last Salute To The Commodore – Original air date May 2, 1976

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And then there was this disaster. It’s horrible. I think it’s meant to be played for laughs, but it just fails so miserably.

This complete misfire was directed by Patrick McGoohan, who had himself acted in the series, playing the murderer on two episodes. McGoohan was largely responsible for the very bizarre, but very intriguing The Prisoner series in which he played the title role. I’m not sure if he brought that bizarreness to this episode, so I won’t placed the blame on him. Not entirely.

I don’t know why, but for this show it was decided to make it an actual mystery. The audience does not know whodunit, which is not the way the series goes. All the other Columbo episodes let us know who the killer is at the beginning and then we are entertained by watching how Columbo catches them. We don’t get that with this show.

The characters are all silly, Columbo is not quite right (there are no “uh, just one more thing” or “oh, I almost forgot” moments), and there are ham-handed attempts at slapstick comedy throughout. What the hell were the producers thinking?!

I recommend you watch it once to see how bad it is and then never, ever watch it again.

Believe me, it’s awful.

Packing Peanuts!

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2 thoughts on “Best & worst of Columbo

  1. Tunaman says:

    No one can tell me “Columbo Cries Wolf ” isn’t the most ingenious and dramatic “gotcha” ending of all, having to rank it right up there as a bestie.

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